Taking custom photos with professional cameras and lenses is one of the easiest ways to give your website and other marketing materials an obvious and immediate professional edge.
So, whether you’re a photographer starting a photography business, or a business looking to take better pictures of your food, products, real estate, services, events, people, and more, I recommend upgrading from your smartphone.
This guide will discuss the reasons professional cameras outshine smartphones, and the best equipment you can purchase today to get started taking photos that will stand out.
Pro Cameras vs Smartphones
What is the difference between a professional camera and a smartphone?
The main edge that professional cameras have over smartphones is bokeh – the ability to blur anything outside of your plane of focus. This enables you to separate your subject from your background. A soft background has long been associated with beauty and image quality. Show someone an image with bokeh and an image with the whole image in focus, and the average person is likely to intuitively identify the image with bokeh as the professional photo.
While the iPhone’s Portrait mode and similar lens blur features on Android can simulate a blurred background, look closely at the edges of your subject and you’ll see imperfect outlines, especially around hair and soft edges. If a person is standing with their arms on their hips, you might see the shape between their arms is pin-sharp even though it should be blurred. While the programming behind Portrait mode is impressive, to date, there is no smartphone that offers a truly natural bokeh.
Other features that differentiate professional cameras from smartphones include higher resolution (usually 6,000 x 4,000 pixels), more natural renditions of color and light, and a superior dynamic range. Dynamic range is the amount of detail you can see in a photo at different exposure levels, especially in the darkest and lightest areas of your image. As smartphones advance, the gaps in these three areas are narrowing but still present.
Finally, the last feature that sets professional cameras apart is the range of lenses available. To date, no digital camera can capture faraway subjects up close in the way that you can capture a portrait using an 84mm full frame lens or a wild animal using a 200mm lens.
What is the best type of entry level professional camera?
While DSLRs were popular in the 2010s, camera and lens manufacturers have shifted their focus to a more popular camera format that is lighter weight and smaller.
As of 2022, the best entry level professional camera is a mirrorless camera.
There are two main types of mirrorless cameras: full frame and APS-C. These cameras have about the same functionality. Both will let you manually control aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. You’ll be able to capture images at 24+ megapixels (6,000 x 4,000 resolution). And, since most APS-C cameras are hybrid cameras, you’ll also be able to record 4K video.
What is the difference between APS-C and full frame?
While a full frame camera has a 36 x 24mm sensor, an APS-C sensor is about 24 x 16mm.
This results in a tradeoff.
- With APS-C, the smaller sensor will give you about 50% less bokeh (background blur), and marginally less dynamic range than a full frame camera.
- Because the sensor is smaller, the camera body and lenses are generally half the size, weight and price.
Should I get an APS-C or full frame camera?
I recommend APS-C cameras and lenses.
APS-C cameras give you a serious “bang per buck” and they put professional image quality within reach for $1,500 rather than $3,800, and 1.5 pounds of weight instead of 3.2 pounds.
|Sample ASP-C Setup|
|Sony A6400||$898||0.89 lb|
|Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8||$549||0.64 lb|
|$1,447 + tax||1.53 lb|
|Sample Full Frame Setup|
|Sony A7 IV||$2,498||1.40 lb|
|Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8||$1,099||1.84 lb|
|$3,597 + tax||3.24 lb|
In cases when you need more bokeh, you can always purchase a f/1.4 lens, which will give you the same level of bokeh as a full frame camera with a f/2.8 lens.
While dynamic range is somewhat less, APS-C cameras have such excellent dynamic range that this will only be relevant in extreme situations. This difference will not be apparent to the vast majority of people looking at your photos.
What’s the best APS-C camera to buy?
I recommend the Sony A6400 ($900), Sony’s mid-tier Sony APS-C camera. Sony has the industry’s fastest autofocus, which makes shooting easier and faster.
The A6600 ($1,400) is Sony’s highest-end APS-C camera as of 2022. This camera has a heavier and longer-lasting battery pack, which only comes in handy if you have the camera turned on for 5 hours a day. The camera is officially rated to take 720 shots on one charge. It also has built-in image stabilization for video recording. However, if you’re recording handheld video, you should ideally use a gimbal or software to fix unwanted camera movement.
Sony also offers lower end models including the A6000 and A6100. These models only have slightly lower prices than the A6400 and they lack some features that you may want. So I recommend avoiding them and getting the A6400.
If you’re looking outside of Sony’s line, the Fuji X-T4 ($1,700) is an exceptional APS-C camera. You might choose to buy a Fuji camera if you like Fuji’s set of built-in filters, or if you like Fuji lenses that are not available for other camera mount systems. The X-T4 is also noted for intuitive buttons and its ability to shoot 4K video at 60fps. (Unless you are very interested in high frame rate or slow motion videography, 60fps is likely not very useful. The standard frame rate for commercial video is 30fps, and the standard in the film industry is 24fps. Sony’s cameras can shoot 4K at both 30fps and 24fps.)
Which brand should I buy?
Each camera brand has its own lens mounting system, so you need to buy lenses that are compatible with the camera you choose. This means that in choosing a camera, you’re also choosing what “lens ecosystem” you want to join.
Sony, Canon, Fuji, Nikon and Panasonic produce roughly the same quality images at the same price levels.
There are minor differences between the brands. These differences won’t make you a better photographer, but they can let you try a new feature or a unique type of lens that you can’t get in another ecosystem.
If you read or watch enough camera reviews and lens reviews, you’ll likely come to the conclusion that most reviewers believe Sony offers the best value today. Sony’s faster autofocus is a huge advantage over other brands. In blind tests, viewers also prefer Sony images over images from other brands, indicating a preference for Sony’s color science (the rendition of colors captured in an image).
Sony itself produces expensive lenses, but third party manufacturers like Sigma and Tamron have produced a variety of useful lenses to cover virtually any need. (By the way, don’t be afraid of buying third party lenses. They often perform better than Sony’s lenses, even though they cost much less.)
What are the best APS-C lenses for Sony E Mount?
Any lens labeled “Sony E” will be compatible with your Sony APS-C camera. These lenses listed below consistently outperform others in head-to-head image quality comparisons on YouTube and lens review websites.
Sigma 56mm f/1.4
The Sigma 56mm f/1.4 (about $400) is easily the most popular lens for portrait and product photography. Considered a long lens, this focal length will feel “zoomed in,” so you’ll need to take steps away from your subject if you want to include more of the environment in your composition. Because of APS-C’s smaller sensor size and resulting 1.5x crop factor, a 56mm APS-C lens is the equivalent of a 84mm lens on a full frame or traditional 35mm camera. With virtually zero distortion and a beautiful bokeh, this lens is ideal for commercial photography.
Sigma 30mm f/1.4
The Sigma 30mm f/1.4 ($300) APS-C lens is the equivalent of a 45mm lens on a traditional full frame 35mm camera. 45 mm is considered the most natural focal length for approximating the way the human eye sees the world, making this a wonderful lens for portraits and product photography. Because this lens is wider than the 56mm, you won’t need to stand quite so far away from your subjects.
Sigma 16mm f/1.4
The Sigma 16mm f/1.4 ($400) is the APS-C equivalent of a 24mm full frame focal length. This is close to Steven Spielberg’s favorite focal length (21mm full frame). This focal length renders realistic images with a slightly exaggerated sense of space. This can make compositions more expressive in photography and movement more dynamic in cinematography. This focal length is also excellent for vlogging, since you can capture your head, shoulders, and environment while holding the camera at a natural distance. Due to this focal length’s inherent distortion, this lens is not typically used for portrait or product photography.
Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8
The Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8 ($500) zoom lens effectively gives you multiple lenses in one compact package. Zoom lenses give you more flexibility than prime lenses at the expense of less bokeh and slightly worse performance in low light conditions. (A maximum aperture of f/2.8 will yield about half the background blur as f/1.4.) With a zoom lens, you can capture a wide angle landscape shot at 18mm, then zoom in and take a beautiful portrait at 50mm. If this feature appeals to you, and a very blurry background isn’t critical, you’ll love this lens.
Tamron 11-20mm f/2.8
The Tamron 11-20mm f/2.8 ($700) wide angle zoom lens is ideal for real estate photography, nature landscape shots, and any kind of videography where you want to capture an expansive view of your surroundings. This lens captures the equivalent of a 16mm to 30mm zoom range on a full frame camera – the type of range favored by wide angle filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Alfonso Cuarón. Bokeh tends to be less desirable or noticeable at wide focal lengths, so f/2.8 is usually a low enough aperture.
If you decide you want a prime lens for wide angle photography, look at the Rokinon 12mm f/2.0 with autofocus ($350), which is excellent for low-light photography, and the Laowa 9mm f/2.8 ($500), which renders scenes with zero distortion despite its ultrawide focal length.
Should I buy a kit lens?
Manufacturers typically offer cameras with an option to bundle the camera body with a “kit lens.” Kit lenses are inexpensive lenses that will get you up and running, but not with the highest image quality. They typically have poor low-light capabilities and minimal bokeh since they often stop at f/4 rather than f/2.8. Detail fanatics will also notice issues like chromatic aberration and unnecessary distortion.
Most professional photographers buy a camera body without a kit lens and then purchase a higher quality lens separately.
Full Frame Cameras
What is the best full frame camera and lens?
Full frame cameras and full frame lenses are generally twice the bulk, weight and price as their APS-C equivalents. If you’re comfortable with this, then Sony A7 IV ($2,500) is an excellent full-frame camera.
Compared to the Sony A6400 camera, this camera’s 1.5x larger sensor size will give you slightly better low light performance, and you’ll be able to create up to 50% more background blur (depending on the aperture you choose when shooting).
One of the most popular lenses for this camera is the Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 ($1,100). This zoom range allows you to capture creative wide angles (24-40mm), naturalistic “normal” angles (40-50mm), and telephoto shots for product photography (50mm-70mm) without ever switching lenses.